Here’s the thing… I’ve been preaching through the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Rome in the last year. We’ve just hit chapter 9 and we started right after easter 2015. It’s been good…at least from my perspective. I think that the entire first section of the letter is dealing with the big ‘contemporary’ issue: who’s in and who’s out…and on what basis? That is: who is part of God’s family and on what basis?
I’ve been struck by a couple of things:
First, how much of the discussion revolves around ‘law’ – nomos. This is to be expected in so many ways. Paul, as a Jew, had lived a life like so many other of his contemporaries, that was driven by the interpretation of the religious law. Adherence and faithfulness to the ‘law’ denoted one’s own faithfulness to the covenant with God.
And yet the crunch is that Paul, having encountered the resurrected Jesus has become aware that there is a new way to live – a new righteousness – that is not determined by faithfulness to the ‘law’ but by a trusting relationship with God (Rom 1:16-17). It appears that it is this assertion, and Paul’s mission to the gentiles on the basis of it, that has caused no end of strife and struggle in the Israelite/Jewish community.
Second, what seems to inspire this paradigm-shifting transformation in Paul is on the one hand his encounter with the resurrected Jesus, but on the other hand it appears that Paul has been (metaphorically) blown away by a fresh understanding of God’s love. While ‘love’ is mentioned on fewer occasions in the letter than ‘law’ it is clear that love is THE driving force in Paul’s missional agenda. Love is a present experience in the life of the disciple (5:5); Love is the evidence of God’s commitment to humanity (5:8); Love is the ever-present, unbreakable bond of God with humanity (8:39); Love fulfills the law (13:8-10).
I for one do not think that the Christ-following Paul preached a gospel that was deliberately antithetical to traditional Judaism. I think that in his encounter with the resurrected Jesus- perhaps having missed this previously – Paul comes to realise that Judaism is in fact (and always has been) infused with love, grace, mercy, and compassion. Judaism is built on the foundation stones of love and grace. Whether recalling Abraham or the Mosaic law it seems that love and grace predominate Paul’s thinking in Romans. Abraham’s call is an example of God’s grace in action. God choice of the people of Israel is run through with love. The gift of the law is another example of God’s grace. Paul makes clear – following Jesus, and other ‘teachers of the law’ (Luke 10:27) that the key to keeping the covenant with God and thereby obeying the law is that ‘love is the fulfilling of the law’ (Romans 13:10).
In the beginning was love. For God is love. The gift of the law gave practical examples and directives as to what love looks like among the community of God’s people.
But the priority is love.
So, the big ‘contemporary’ issue I began with: who’s in and who’s out…and on what basis? That is: who is part of God’s family and on what basis? For too long I guess I/we’ve forgotten that God is love and this question answered only through this lens: God is love.
Image: Robert Indiana, LOVE, 1968